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My August vacation guide
to the area is preserved here by popular demand Thank You!
A TOUR OF RIVERBY
Riverby. To anyone familiar with the life and works of John Burroughs, one of America's most revered Naturalists, this name conjures thoughts of his beloved Ulster County home on the west bank of the Hudson River. Here, John Burroughs entertained all manner of guests, including some of the wealthiest and most powerful men of his time. Here too, in the benign micro-climate of Hudson's shore, Burroughs raised fruits and vegetables, cultivating marvelous gardens whose produce generated a handsome income on the gentle slopes of his domain. But, above all else, here he observed the world around him and wrote many of his inspiring essays on man and nature.
I had a chance to visit Riverby one cold, rainy day this March. A day with more promise of Spring than delivery, not the best for a walk. But I had to go. In the following paragraphs I'll take you along with me as I share my impressions of my first visit to this historic site.
The driveway in is sometimes steep as it curves down the slopes and across the flats between the buildings. And what buildings! They must have been amazing when John Burroughs was alive. His affinity with nature is especially evident in their design and construction. The main house is nearest the highway, built into the hill, so that the ground floor in front is the second in back. This was John Burroughs' home, all stone, steep roofed and shake shingled, comfortably nestled under the hemlocks. I think it's a fantasy that grew from the land rather than was built on it, in true fairy-tale style. Steps from this, on the beginning of the back lawn, is a smaller, single story (cook?) house with overlapping corner stones. This unusual design is repeated where ever two stone walls meet, even on the chimneys. It reminds me of the alternating log ends on a pioneer's cabin, only of stone. Riverby looks like an odd cross between a fantasy land and an Adirondack camp. Somehow the styles come together.
In front of the cook-house is a walk-in stone & cedar gazebo, with the well-house in the center, leaving a cool hideaway big enough for seating on a hot summer's day. This is in contrast to the cisterns that are used nearby, which, disquised as honeypots, poke their peculiar tops skyward, as if inviting some giant to lift them for filling. These are part of a later generation's surreal additions, visible across the drive, infusing this sublime setting with some humor.
A large carriage barn, also across the drive, incongruous in its new asbestos shingles, has an almost gothic look, with gables, ornaments and tiny paned windows. And behind and above it is the open sugar house that Burroughs wrote of, huge, with its massive stone foundation exposed where the sloping land retreats, and solid cedar trunks as roof supports.
Below that is "The Nest," a two story wooden Arts & Crafts house with a strong streak of whimsy. Truly a funky home, built later than the first, with a bizarre concrete barn (added by the one responsible for the cisterns?) and "The Casino" cottage with its open second floor used as a covered deck or patio.
Farther down the drive is the gem on the grounds, John Burroughs' bark-sided writing cabin. It sits on the edge, with its view over the gardens and down the slope to the river now overgrown. Much of his time here was spent writing and entertaining his frequent visitors. Peeking through the windows, it looks as if he just closed the door to leave for a moment - over seventy five years ago! A book sits on the table with papers lying where they fell, promising such an intimate glimpse into his life that I felt like a peeping tom. What was he reading before he left? I squint to read the title in the poor light.This rustic, hand-built cabin sports a brass plaque dated 1968, with words to the effect that this National Historic Site has a value in preserving or illustrating our heritage.
An adirondack-style gazebo, once lord of the view, sits nearby. I wanted to rest where countless others had and imagine an enlightening conversation with the master gone these many years, but I could not.
. . .
I'm afraid that I must end my reverie there. By now you all know that Riverby is in very bad shape, even if you don't know who John Burroughs was. But, these ruminations, especially the longer version printed elsewhere which graphically describes the abandonment I perceived, may have created the wrong impression, and certainly generated some unwanted feelings. In my quixotic attempt to save some books and promote an awareness of the writings of one of America's pioneer conservationists, I may have caused distress to some people who are entirely blameless. That was certainly not my intent, and, to the extent that that actually happened, I am profoundly sorry.
There is also some concern that the "tour" might encourage unwanted visitors and lead to the loss of personal property. My intent in writing this was to insure the preservation of history, not it's wanton destruction. I am still convinced that leaving sleeping dogs lie, as-it-were, will ultimately lead to the loss of what was once a pristine Hudson River estate, but subsequent events have not convinced me that anyone cares enough to do anything about it. Conversations with elected officials, appointed officials, historians, the press, de facto representatives of various organizations sporting the John Burroughs name, and various family members, have all been fruitless.
For the record, the historic site of Riverby is private property. The owners have asked that their privacy be respected, and assured me that future transgressions will be considered trespassing. They have also assured me that the Bark Study contents are "props" - not the originals I was led to believe, and that the new roof and drainage work around the study are sufficient to preserve the structure and its contents. If that is true, that is certainly good news! Whether it is true or not, I have no way of knowing, nor could I do anything about it if I did.
I hope this encourages everyone to read John Burroughs' writings and develop a greater awareness of nature and our place in the world.
To learn more about John Burroughs, visit Slabsides and Woodchuck Lodge when they are open to the public.
Richard Frisbie 7/7/97
there follows a brief nugget of John Burroughs' writing . . . my favorite lines from his boat trip on the Delaware.
Whom shall one take with him when he goes a-courting Nature ? This is always a vital question. There are persons who will stand between you and that which you seek: they obtrude themselves; they monopolize your attention; they blunt your sense of the shy, half-revealed intelligences about you. I want for companion a dog or a boy, or a person who has the virtues of dogs and boys, transparency, good-nature, curiosity, open sense, and a nameless quality that is akin to trees and growths and the inarticulate forces of nature. With him you are alone, and yet have company; you are free; you feel no disturbing element; the influences of nature stream through him and around him; he is a good conductor of the subtle fluid. The quality or qualification I refer to belongs to most persons who spend their lives in the open air, to soldiers, hunters, fishers, laborers, and to artists and poets of the right sort. How full of it, to choose an illustrious example, was such a man as Walter Scott!
But no such person came in answer to my prayer, so I set out alone.
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